Society

Between the Sheets

Why you should resist the lure of book clubs

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• 1,113 words

Reading is arguably the second-most intimate human activity, and, as with the first-most intimate human activity, there are people who will try to convince you that it’s better done in groups. These groups are called book clubs. I am in one. Maybe you are, too. If so, here’s why we’ve both made a terrible mistake.

In theory, there’s much to recommend book clubs. They encourage reading. They enrich authors who, as you may have heard, are not particularly in the business of being enriched these days. They spur socializing, usually face to face, another valuable and endangered activity. Public book clubs—most notably Oprah’s, or CBC’s Canada Reads—have become an essential economic engine for the publishing industry. And the book club remains appealing to anyone who, like me, romanticizes long arguments over sonnets in smoky coffee houses, or who occasionally longs for the womb of the lecture hall—where, as eager students, we were convinced that each new unread novel held the power to shape our lives.

So it’s not surprising that our collective interest in book clubs is growing, even as our interest in reading shrinks. This year, the Globe and Mail—which, like many major newspapers, reduced its coverage of actual books—launched a semi-regular column on book clubs titled, depressingly, Clubland. (The word “clubland,” of course, is usually associated with dance clubs, and seems here like a ham-fisted way to make book clubs sound sexy and fun—you know, like dancing!—in much the same hamfisted way book clubs are designed to make reading seem sexy and fun.)

Literary Fraternity

From the Globe and Mail’s Clubland column

Illustration by Rachel Tennenhouse
Rachel Tennenhouse

To keep the focus where it belongs, members of the Wheat Sheaf Literary Society waste no time fretting over who will host the next meeting, what to wear or the type of food and drink to serve.

These are men, after all; serious men who must surely have more important things on their minds than such trifling details. Or maybe, being men, they just couldn’t be bothered.

Whatever it is, their stripped-down strategy has served them well through the half-dozen years they have been convening to talk fiction (the written-down kind) at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern, Toronto’s oldest pub. The Sheaf, which turns 160 this year, was off-limits to women until 1969 but continues to lure a mostly male clientele with the glow of its big-screen TVs, the clack of billiard balls and an ever-bubbling deep fryer.

As I mentioned, I am in a book club. It has four other members, all of whom I respect, and who represent a spectrum of literary tastes. Our selections have ranged from Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser to Martin Amis’s Money to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. And, like every book club, we do our book club thing. We shuffle our schedules. We gather. We drink wine. We eat cheese. And we talk about the chosen book for a few obligatory minutes before we move on to the part of the club I think most of us really look forward to, which is not talking about the book.

You might contend that your club is different; that it has unsealed your eyes to new and exotic authors; and that you have great Riesling-fuelled, soul-enriching debates that linger long into the night. That may be so. I don’t doubt or begrudge you. But I would suggest that this fascination with book clubs—forming them, joining them, chronicling them—is both antithetical to the enjoyment of reading, and perfectly in keeping with our modern conviction that nothing is worth doing that isn’t immediately shared.

Maybe it’s posting photos of the family vacation on Facebook, or tweeting the details of your morning latte, or uploading your wedding boogie to YouTube. Now, I love a good wedding boogie. But to suggest that the experience of reading The House of Mirth (a recent well-received selection by my own book club) is intrinsically enhanced by subsequently talking about reading The House of Mirth is to imply that reading The House of Mirth is an experience that can be, and needs to be, enhanced. And I think most anyone who’s ever read a book and loved it understands that’s simply not true. If you read Moby Dick while sailing the world alone, you would not enjoy it less. In fact, I think you’d enjoy it more.

Which brings us back to the intimacy of reading. Consider something even as silly and modest as this article: I’m in your head right now. You have graciously allowed me to slip inside the private sphere of your consciousness, if only for a few minutes. (It’s like a twist on that hoary babysitter horror movie: The voice is coming from inside your head! ) This is very different from how we experience any other kind of art: no matter how much you enjoy a painting or revel in a symphony, there’s not a sense that the painter has hijacked your eyes or the composer has hijacked your ears. The writer, though, hijacks your thoughts. (Hello! Hello!—I’m making you say that right now.) Have you ever found that after reading a writer with a particularly musical cadence your own thoughts echo those rhythms for days? The experience of reading so closely mimics the process of consciousness that it attains a unique level of artistic intimacy. Great art permeates the barrier of consciousness; reading obliterates it. It literally happens inside you. How’s that for intimate?

So if reading—in this sense of pleasurable invasion—is a sexual experience, then the book club is the equivalent of a locker room. It’s the place where we gather to swap and compare notes after the fact, clumsily recounting the deed in a way that can’t help but undermine and cheapen the very experience we’ve gathered to celebrate. Sure, it can be a fun way to burn off the occasional weeknight, but no one’s going to mistake it for the act itself. (Not to mention the feeble, thrice-removed thrill of reading about people talking about reading, as per the Globe’s Clubland.) And, as we all learn eventually, certain experiences are better when you don’t go blabbing about them afterward. Was it good for you? Then that should be more than enough.

Adam Sternbergh (adamsternbergh.com) is a novelist and a contributing editor at New York magazine.